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July 21: Barbie’s Father

Lawrence Bush
July 20, 2016

barbiecreatorsElliot Handler, the founder of Mattel Toys (with his wife and high school sweetheart Ruth), died at 95 on this date in 2011. The Handlers started their business making costume jewelry and dollhouse furniture in their garage in Southern California (Elliot had been an art student). Early on, he designed a miniature toy piano and sold 300,000 of them — but miscalculated the wholesale price and lost a dime on each. The Handlers got out of debt and became wealthy (along with a partner, Harold “Matt” Matson, whom they bought out) manufacturing inexpensive music-box toys and then the Chatty Cathy doll. Soon came Barbie (1959), then Hot Wheels (1968) and much, much more. Ruth ran the business; Elliot designed or cultivated most of the toys. In 1975, the Handlers were ousted from the company, by then the largest toy company in the world, and in 1978 Ruth was found guilty of mail fraud and false reporting to the Securities and Exchange Commission; she was fined $57,000 and sentenced to 2,500 hours of community service. In 1989, the Handlers were the first living people inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame. Today, according to China Labor Watch, “six Chinese factories making toys for Mattel steal between $8 million and $11 million from their workers. Mattel has approximately 100 suppliers in China, and these millions may only be the tip of the iceberg, because it is only through labor abuse that factories are able to accept such low prices from Mattel to produce its toys.”

“Advertising on television was one of two key decisions that the Handlers made during the 1950s, which transformed Mattel from a profitable business into an industry leader. The other key turning point was the invention and marketing of a three-dimensional doll through which little girls could act out their dreams of growing up.”

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.